Lecture seven: Marxism, art and the Soviet debate over “proletarian culture”

Part 1


The following is the first part of the lecture “Marxism, art and the Soviet debate over ‘proletarian culture’.” It was delivered by David Walsh, the arts editor of the World Socialist Web Site, at the Socialist Equality Party/WSWS summer school held August 14 to August 20, 2005 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It appears in four parts.

This is the seventh lecture given at the school. The first, entitled “The Russian Revolution and the unresolved historical problems of the 20th century” was posted in four parts, from August 29 to September 1. The second, “Marxism versus revisionism on the eve of the twentieth century,” was posted in three parts on September 2, 4 and 5. The third, “The origins of Bolshevism and What Is To Be Done?” was posted in seven parts from September 6 to September 13. The fourth, “Marxism, history and the science of perspective,” was posted in six parts from September 14 to September 20. These lectures were authored by World Socialist Web Site Editorial Board Chairman David North. The fifth, “World War I: The breakdown of capitalism,” was delivered by Nick Beams, the national secretary of the Socialist Equality Party of Australia and a member of the WSWS Editorial Board. It was posted in five parts, from September 21 to September 26. The sixth “Socialism in one country or permanent revolution” was delivered by Bill Van Auken and posted in three parts, from September 27 to September 29.

A few remarks on our approach to art

The subject of this talk is our work in the sphere of art and culture. With the aim of shedding some light on that work, I would like to begin, at least, to consider the debate over cultural problems that occurred in the Soviet Union in the 1920s—specifically, the debate over the “proletarian culture” movement.

We place questions of culture at the center of our work. We have noted before that Trotsky’s literary struggle against bureaucratism in the USSR began with the writing of the essays in 1922 and 1923 that made up the volume Literature and Revolution.

The notion that Trotsky’s intervention on art and culture was a reckless excursion, a diversion from the political and ideological struggle, is deeply mistaken. With the failure of the German revolution in October 1923, in particular, Trotsky recognized that there was a colossal shift in the world situation. He argued that there was the short lever of correct policy and the longer lever of international revolution.

There was no defeatism in the policies of the Left Opposition. Given the temporary isolation of the Soviet Union, everything depended on the correct approach to economic and cultural life. Russia’s backwardness, including its reflection within more uneducated and inexperienced layers drawn toward the Bolshevik Party, created an immense pressure on the workers’ regime.

In July 1923, several months before the open battle with the emerging bureaucratic caste began, Trotsky published his remarkable article, “Not by Politics Alone,” whose title indicated his insistence on the urgency of the cultural problems. He admonished those who continued to utilize the language and rhetoric of the pre-revolutionary days, a language that was no longer likely to arouse anyone, and argued that “our chief problems have shifted to the needs of culture and economic reconstruction.” He continued: “We must learn to work efficiently: accurately, punctually, economically. We need culture in work, culture in life, in the conditions of life.” [1]

Lenin, Trotsky, Aleksandr Voronsky and others tirelessly promoted the cultural welfare of the population, in its most elementary aspects (literacy, family relations, alcoholism, “cultured speech,” punctuality, etc.) as well as its most elaborate and mediated form, artistic creation. They advocated the study and assimilation of artistic classics, as well as—in the cases of Trotsky and, most specifically, Voronsky—encouraging the birth of a new imaginative literature, with remarkable and enduring results.

In the course of those efforts they found themselves in opposition to vulgar, shallow and wrongheaded “left” arguments that sought to reduce art to an expression of the (alleged) immediate political and practical needs of the Soviet working class and Bolshevik regime, in the name of so-called “proletarian culture.” This program ultimately became even more narrowly focused in the form of “Socialist Realism,” as artistic creation was brutally harnessed to the interests and aims of the national-bureaucratic caste, creating what Trotsky would call “a kind of concentration camp of artistic literature.” [2]

Indeed, over the next several decades, Stalinism expended great effort in shoveling dirt on the early accomplishments of the revolution in art and culture, and the human beings responsible for them, while encouraging everything backward in Russian society, the legacy of that “realm of darkness” exposed and decried by the country’s great democratic publicists in the nineteenth century.

In the end, the objective difficulties facing the first sustained attempt to organize social life on a principle other than the exploitation of man by man had proved overwhelming, with terrible results. In facing our own specific challenges today, under quite changed conditions, hardly anything could be more vital than studying the lessons of those dramatic experiences.

First, however, I would like to give some indication of our general approach, which, in any event, owes a great deal to Trotsky and Voronsky.

* * *

Every significant artistic coming to terms with the world, in our view, contributes toward expanding our sensitivity to the human condition and our own psychological and, ultimately, social awareness. Such efforts must encourage honesty with others and oneself, broadmindedness and, if it’s not too pompous a phrase, depth of soul. An encounter with a serious work inevitably enriches the personality, and draws attention to the essential and most complex questions in life.

The relationship between artistic truth and the socio-historical process is immensely complicated; each set of historical conditions needs to be examined concretely. However, it would be hard to conceive of a decisive break in social continuity in the modern era, involving the conscious rejection of the established order by masses of people, that would not be preceded (and be prepared, in part) by a period of intense artistic and intellectual ferment. At present, we largely witness the consequences of the absence of such ferment, in the overall debasement of social life.

Serious art works toward transforming life. However, the impatient, the pragmatic, the youthful will never be satisfied by the contradictory and sometimes subterranean character of this development, by the fact that the most profound works do not tend to offer specific political conclusions and that the artist often has only a limited conception of the ultimate consequences of his or her own effort. Rosa Luxemburg comments, in an article entitled “Life of Korolenko,” that “[W]ith the true artist, the social formula that he recommends is a matter of secondary importance; the source of his art, its animating spirit, is decisive.” [3]

Nonetheless, one of the first “discoveries” about the world that the serious artist and his or her viewer or reader will make is that it needs to be changed. Art, by its own particular means—and a grasp of those particular means is hardly beside the point—helps align thinking and feeling closer to the actual state of human affairs; certain forms offer insight into the nature of social relationships, the mood and sentiments of various social groupings, the diversity and complexity of the social organism itself, as well as the more enduring and even vexing features of human psychology.

In our historical conditions, working to transform life means, above all, undermining the grip of the existing order over humanity’s heart and mind. No one who responds deeply and consistently to art’s “human-ness” is likely to remain indifferent in the end to a system rooted in exploitation and which has the cruelest consequences for vast portions of the global population. Furthermore, by exposing people to the infinitely varied, transitory character of human relationships, art weakens the claims of permanence and legitimacy, much less God-given authority, made by the powers-that-be.

Art and science are not intrinsically at odds. They cognize the same universe. In the most general sense, one is inclined to believe that rational insight into social life and history is indispensable for any serious creative effort. In arranging sounds in a certain order, designing plans for a new building or adding color to an empty canvas, one adopts a certain standpoint vis à vis the external world, toward history, toward other people. One approves or disapproves of things. One displays urgency or one doesn’t. One is critical or caustic, self-satisfied or demoralized. In that overriding sense, in order to contribute and not merely kill time, every artist needs to be something of a specialist in the way people organize life on this planet.

Producing a drama, a novel or a film without some advanced degree of insight into the larger, socially crucial relationships between human beings and the history of those relationships seems a particularly reckless and futile effort.

Is art, however, merely a vaguely disreputable, somewhat more nebulous and slightly out-of-focus younger sibling of science and philosophy, the “negative” image of those other fields’ “positive”? Is art’s realm those difficult-to-get-at places between humanity’s teeth that science and philosophy simply cannot reach? If this were the case, it would be, to a considerable extent, a luxury item. One would have to ask: What is the need for art? To borrow a thought from Trotsky in another context, if art has no independent function, if it is identical with sociological or other processes, then it is unnecessary, useless; it would be actively harmful because it would be a superfluous complication—”and what a complication!” [4]

Rationalism and logic, science and history do not exhaust art. Its objectively indispensable function is to picture human life by adhering intimately to psychological and social experience (including experience with sound, color, the movement of the human body), adhering to the inner and outer contours of that experience, and transforming them into images that catch at essential realities in a concrete, sensuous manner.

Science resolves the material of the world into abstract categories. In science, logical evaluation holds sway; in art, aesthetic evaluation. Art makes use of the concrete and sensuous itself to create its own particular abstractions, images. In everyday life, however, our sentiments are bound up with specific people and events. In artistic imagery, our feelings and thoughts are refined and heightened, not tied to this or that fleeting impression or moment. Art has its own peculiar generalizing powers.

We Marxists emphasize the need for objective knowledge in art. That is one of our responsibilities. If we did not, who would? We insist that art today needs the element of scientific appraisal like never before in the modern era. Intellectual slovenliness, self-indulgence and cheap emotional histrionics pervade the scene. Nonetheless, we are also perfectly well aware that sincere and spontaneous art only emerges out of the closest contact with the unconscious and the deliberate accessing of what normally remains hidden inside.

There is a realm that lies outside the immediate power of science, much less “common sense,” to cognize. Humanity has a vast socio-psychological experience. All of the experiences with love, fear, death, the continual interaction of human beings and nature, the almost infinitely complex relations of human beings to one another, the building up of the “inner life,” the “soul,” and all of these under changing historical conditions. Serious art also crystallizes this vast experience.

A few months ago, a reader of the World Socialist Web Site wrote in, informing me that the novel was finished. After all, if the theme of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina could be summed up in one sentence, why waste all our time with an 800-page book? This manages to miss everything. The art work creates a space in which truths about human existence are not merely stated, off the top of the head, as rational concepts, but established—proven dramatically, emotionally and intellectually through the most intense reworking and experiencing. In some fashion or other, the reader or viewer or listener undergoes the same painful-pleasurable ordeal as the artist.

At the highest levels of art, the attempt to separate thought from feeling is entirely vain. Here, thinking and feeling are passing back and forth between charged poles so rapidly and meaningfully that a heightened state is attained. One thinks emotionally and feels ideas in an unsurpassable manner. As Voronsky puts it, one feels as though one is “brushing up against the very depths and sources of being; one senses harmony in the cosmos, and one’s impressions are magnificent and triumphant.” [5]

Our movement has insisted that a crisis currently exists in artistic perspective and production, not just in cinema, but more generally, a spiritual crisis bound up with the traumas and disappointments of the twentieth century and the general social impasse.

We strenuously reject the conclusions of those who have essentially given up, in politics or art, in the face of the present difficulties. The collapse of the Soviet Union, the abandonment of reformism by the social democratic parties, the decay of the traditional labor organizations have driven a considerable number into despair and demoralization.

The long-time editor of the New Left Review, Perry Anderson, associated with various Pabloite tendencies, declared a few years ago: “Whatever limitations persist to its practice, neo-liberalism as a set of principles rules undivided across the globe: the most successful ideology in world history.” [6]

Postmodernism adapted itself more or less cheerfully and playfully to this supposed triumph. A deplorable figure like Jean Baudrillard, a former Marxist, of course [There must be or there certainly ought to be application forms in France, either in government, academia or private business, that contain “Former Marxist” as one of the standard possible choices under “previous work and/or life experience”], proclaims the “death of the real”— i.e., as Doug Mann notes in “Jean Baudrillard: A Very Short Introduction,” Baudrillard “argues that in a postmodern culture dominated by TV, films, news media, and the Internet, the whole idea of a true or a false copy of something has been destroyed: all we have now are simulations of reality, which aren’t any more or less ‘real’ than the reality they simulate.”

Baudrillard “describes a postmodernity predicated on death—the end of history, the social, meaning, politics, etc.—whilst offering no recipes or strategies of resistance.” A perverse and paradoxical change has taken place, “signaling the end of the very possibility of change.” [7]

Baudrillard notes that his decision to visit the US stemmed from his desire to seek “the finished form of the future catastrophe.” [8]

Left critics of postmodernism, like the academic Fredric Jameson, operate within the same essential intellectual orbit, perhaps deploring or lamenting what Baudrillard and others celebrate or ironize about, but accepting, for all intents and purposes, the inevitability of global capitalist rule.

Jameson cites various symptoms of what he calls “the cultural logic of late capitalism”—for example, the thoroughgoing commodification of culture, its subsuming into a degraded mass culture, the loss of depth in art, the “waning of affect” (feeling or emotion), the increasing stagnation and lifelessness of the art object, the dominance of impersonal pastiche, the death of personal and individual style, and so on. Many of these points are valid as a surface description. But what is Jameson’s perspective?

A commentator notes that, in Jameson’s view, “Multinational capitalism creates such a complex web of telecommunications, telemarketing and mobile services that the subject becomes mesmerized within the network of the image.” [9]

The outlook is rather grim. For left-wing organizations, “there cannot but be much that is deplorable and reprehensible in a cultural form of image addiction which, by transforming the past into visual mirages, stereotypes, or texts, effectively abolishes any practical sense of the future and of the collective project, thereby abandoning the thinking of future change to fantasies of sheer catastrophe and inexplicable cataclysm, from visions of ‘terrorism’ on the social level to those of cancer on the personal.” [10]

As a way out, Jameson offers the “political unconscious,” the site of confused, but perhaps utopian desires. He advocates the “ ‘conspiratorial text,’ which, whatever other messages it emits or implies, may also be taken to constitute an unconscious, collective effort at trying to figure out where we are and what landscapes and forces confront us in a late twentieth century, whose abominations are heightened by their concealment and their bureaucratic impersonality.” [11]

It is “by attempting to represent an unrepresentable society and then failing to represent it, by getting lost and caught up in representing the unrepresentable,” [12] a commentator notes that the conspiratorial text apparently makes progress. Jameson argues that “in representations like these, the operative effect is confusion rather than articulation. It is at the point where we give up and are no longer able to remember which side the characters are on, and how they have been revealed to be hooked up with the other ones, that we have presumably grasped the deeper truth of the world system.” [13]

“Confusion rather than articulation.” Truly, a condition of remarkable disorientation. In politics, of course, Jameson falls back on the alliance of various petty bourgeois protest movements, the “new social movements.” He speculates that it may even be possible to “go around,” to “outflank” the dominant postmodern culture. We have nothing nearly so clever in mind. We propose a direct challenge to the existing order in politics, and in art, a truthful picturing, by whatever formal means the artist chooses, of the world. This means, in the first place, struggling to overcome the present crisis in artistic perspective.

To be continued

[1] Problems of Everyday Life (New York and London, 2004), p. 18.
[2] The Revolution Betrayed (Detroit, 1991), pp. 155-156.
[3] www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1918/06/korolenko.htm
[4] Trotsky’s Notebooks: 1933-1935 (New York, 1986), p. 104.
[5] “The Art of Seeing the World” in Art as the Cognition of Life: Selected Writings: 1911-1936 (Oak Park, Michigan, 1998), p. 367.
[6] New Left Review, January-February 2000.
[7] Neville Wakefield, Postmodernism: the Twilight of the Real (London and Winchester, Massachusetts, 1990), p. 140.
[8] www.uta.edu/english/apt/collab/texts/america.html
[9] www.mun.ca/phil/codgito/vol4/v4doc2.html
[10] Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, North Carolina, 1992), p. 46.
[11] The Geopolitical Aesthetic (Bloomington and Indianapolis, Indiana, 1995), p. 3.
[12] www.mun.ca/phil/codgito/vol4/v4doc2.html
[13] The Geopolitical Aesthetic, p. 16.